The image of cars in a showroom
Canada has played a large role in automotive history, from building American-based Ford, Chrysler and GM cars to independent makes such as Hudson, Nash and Studebaker. Even a few Japanese and European cars, such as Honda, Volvo and Austin, have been assembled in Canada.
But the Canadian-built vehicle achieving the most attention was the Bricklin, a sports car manufactured entirely in New Brunswick between 1974 and 1976 by automotive entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin.
After making his fortune in a Florida-based chain of hardware stores, the Pennsylvania native obtained the U.S. rights to sell motor scooters and the Subaru in 1965.
But after selling his Subaru interests, Bricklin wanted to produce a car bearing his own name. He developed a fibreglass and acrylic plastic body with a pair of gull-wing doors that he named “SV-1” (safety vehicle 1). The car was built with several avant-guard items touted as safety features, including an integral roll cage and crash bumpers.
The car had been initially designed by renowned dune-buggy-builder Bruce Meyers in the early 1970s, but Bricklin was adamant about adding gull-wing doors. Marshall Hobart was hired to redesign the car, and a prototype was constructed by 1972.
Taking his prototype and raising some capital, Bricklin planned to use a Michigan facility to produce his dream, but then met with a group in Quebec to discuss building the car at a vacant plant in Saint Bruno.
However, provincial officials did not find Bricklin’s proposal to their liking, nor did they want to subject Quebec citizens to the millions of dollars in loans Bricklin requested.
Instead, Bricklin reached an agreement with the New Brunswick government, with an expected first-year production run of 10,000 to 12,000 cars. A body panel shop was set up in Minto, N.B., and car assembly took place in Saint John.
Early Bricklins were powered by American Motor’s 5.9 L V8 with 220 horsepower. But with less than 800 cars produced in the first year, AMC backed out. Subsequent cars were built in 1975 and 1976 with Ford’s Windsor-built 5.75 L V8, producing 175 horsepower.
The Bricklin had a wheelbase of 244 cm (96 inches), an overall length of 452 cm (178 inches) and a curb weight of 1,574 kg (3,470 pounds).
Performance was not as originally expected due to the car’s weight and the lower engine power, as auto makers tried to meet the recently introduced emission standards that choked much of the engine potential.
All cars were equipped with automatic transmissions, air conditioning, power disc brakes, and full instrumentation. The traditional front-engine/rear-drive platform used unequal length A-arms, with coil springs in front and leaf springs in the rear, based on the AMC Hornet.
A Saginaw recirculating ball sector and gear steered the Bricklin, with 3.2 turns of the steering wheel, lock to lock. The rear differential used a 3.15-to-1 gear ratio.
The defining feature of the Bricklin was the power-operated gull-wing doors, which took 12 seconds to open or close, and became nightmares for owners due to hydraulic leaks and pump failures. Door operation was also a severe strain on the car’s electrical system.
There was a manual override, but it was an effort to get out of the car if the power was not there, as noted in a 1975 report on the Bricklin from magazine:
“If you leave the lights on and run the battery down, you’ll have to connect jumper cables to a socket in the right front fender well,” noted the article. “But if you’re inside trying to get out when some phase of the system fails, there is a manual latch release and a removable pivot pin connecting the hydraulic ram to the door. That allows you to lift the 90-pound wing and squeeze out through whatever crack you can make between it and the body. It feels a lot like climbing out of a manhole while a semi-trailer is parked on the cover.”
The review also raised issues with the interior, such as a lack of headroom, poor rear vision when driving, more wind noise than necessary in a car of this price, and the poor quality of the interior materials.
It was expected that these issues would have been worked out, and the Bricklin would have become a viable alternative to the Chevrolet Corvette. But poor manufacturing techniques, cash-flow problems and politics all played a role in the car’s early demise.
Initially, the Bricklin was projected to sell for about $4,000. But it cost $7,490 in its first year and jumped to $9,990 in the second year. According to the Bricklin International Owners club, 780 cars were produced in 1974, 2,062 in 1975, and just 12 in 1976 before the company went into receivership. The final 299 cars produced were sold to a dealer in Ohio.
The New Brunswick government of Richard Hatfield took a lot of heat for lending, and losing, millions of dollars so Bricklin could set up and build his cars there. The money had been advanced by the province to get the manufacturing underway, but some of these funds were used to continue research and development. This, along with inefficient and wasteful production, burned through the initial loan and other provincial money much sooner than expected. No financial backing from the private sector could be found.
The company simply couldn’t sell enough cars to make it economically viable. It estimated the 1974 batch cost more than $16,000 apiece to produce. The body fabrication plant was a money pit, with up to 60 per cent of production scrapped.
Today, the Bricklin is a sought-after collector car, with good-quality vehicles costing $30,000 to $35,000. Most were purchased by collectors when new and have low mileage, similar to the final 1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertibles, which were predicted to be the last domestic-built convertibles at the time.
With just 2,854 cars built in total, the Bricklin has an impressive survival rate. The car club estimates there are still more than 1,700 registered, with several in Europe, about 200 in Canada, and more than 1,500 in the States.
Although the acrylic/fibreglass body panels do not rust, they are susceptible to cracking — which can be repaired — and kits are available to contend with the interesting but unreliable gull-wing doors. Just about all mechanical parts are available at auto recyclers or auto flea markets.
There are some ironic aspects to the Bricklin saga.
The Canadian government has produced both a commemorative coin and stamp, which had much greater success than the car itself, with both items selling out quickly. The 45-cent stamp was issued in 1996 and the $20 silver coin (designed by Toronto Star graphic artist Brian Hughes) was issued in 2003.
Intriguingly, the new Bricklins were never available to Canadian buyers, because the company was not part of the Canada-U.S. Auto Pact, a 1965 trade agreement that was abolished in 2001.